In January each year, Tamworth rolls out the red rhinestone-embroidered carpet for the 300,000-or-so visitors and 700 artists that descend on the city for the iconic Tamworth Country Music Festival. The 10-day festival is officially recognised as the second biggest celebration of country music in the world (behind industry powerhouse Nashville in the USA), and culminates in the prestigious Golden Guitar Awards. The festival is undoubtedly an amazing time to visit the city, as fans rub shoulders with big names and those with big dreams in music venues across the city. However, there are plenty of ways you can tap into Tamworth’s country music vibe all year round.
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1. The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre
Standing proud at 12 metres high and glittering in the sunshine, The Big Golden Guitar is a beacon for country music fans and one of the best known of Australia’s regional ‘bigs’. Located on the southern approach to Tamworth, The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre serves as the official tourist information centre and should be your first stop on arrival in the city. Collect information on what’s on during your visit and peruse the wall of guitars signed by the likes of Keith Urban and Dolly Parton. These guitars will soon form part of the collection at the new National Guitar Museum, which is scheduled to open at The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre in 2020.
2. Gallery of Stars Wax Museum
You’ll note that The Big Golden Guitar has no strings; it’s a replica of the miniature golden guitars awarded during the Tamworth Country Music Festival. There’s an actual award on display as you enter the Gallery of Stars Wax Museum at The Big Golden Guitar Tourist Centre. A la Madame Tussauds, the museum features life-size wax figures of many of Australia’s most famous country music artists, including Smoky Dawson, Buddy Williams, Lee Kernaghan, Beccy Cole, Chad Morgan and more. The original figures in the collection were made in Nashville, with later additions created here in Australia. The museum will receive a makeover as part of the upgrade of the tourist centre.
3. Peel Street and Hands of Fame Park
Taking a stroll down historic Peel Street – Tamworth’s main thoroughfare – is a country music history lesson in itself. Look for the brass plaques embedded in the pavement (between Fitzroy and Brisbane Streets) which are dedicated to past Golden Guitar Award winners and stop for a photo with the smiling brass statues of Smoky Dawson, and Slim Dusty and wife Joy McKean. McKean won the first ever Golden Guitar Award in 1973 for penning the song Lights On The Hill, which was made famous by Slim (and later covered by both Keith Urban and Mental As Anything). Also drop by the nearby Hands of Fame Park, where the handprints of a who’s who of the industry have been preserved in concrete since 1977. Match palms with the likes of Keith Urban, Tommy Emmanuel, Kasey Chambers, Melinda Schneider and Troy Cassar-Daley.
4. Australian Country Music Hall of Fame
It wouldn’t be a visit to Tamworth without a few hours spent browsing the incredible collection of memorabilia on display at the guitar-shaped Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. The museum also deserves special mention for the work it does behind the scenes in documenting the history of this much-loved musical genre. Thousands of fragile photographs, posters, reels of film and the like continue to be painstakingly digitised and preserved for future posterity by a dedicated team of volunteers. If you have an interest in a particular era or artist, ask the staff if they have anything hidden away out the back. Chances are they’ll whip out some mind-blowing piece of treasure that will make your day.
5. Walk a Country Mile Exhibition
Also housed within the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame is the Walk a Country Mile exhibition – a very engaging chronological presentation of the history of country music in Australia. Illustrated with video and key pieces of memorabilia, even those with a limited interest in country music will find this an interesting experience. One of the highlights is Geoff Mack’s (of I’ve been Everywhere fame) motorcycle.
6. Oxley Scenic Lookout
Country music is renowned for what are known in the industry as big sky ballads, and you’ll get a sense of the inspiration for these myriad tunes up at Oxley Scenic Lookout in the hills behind Tamworth. The lookout provides incredible vistas across the city and the surrounding region, and yes, that sky does look like it goes on, well, forever. While you’re up at the lookout, look for the plaque in the garden that marks the final placement of the ashes of the legendary country music artist Smoky Dawson and his wife Dot. Smoky and Dot lived in Sydney but maintained a special connection with Tamworth over several decades.
Need a place to stay?
The centrally located Quality Hotel Powerhouse is Tamworth’s only 4.5-star hotel and an easy walk to many of the city’s key country music must-sees, including the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. The refurbished Powerhouse King Rooms transport guests back to the stylish Art Deco era of the 1920s. Amenities include a recently refurbished pool, spa and BBQ area.
The Econo Lodge Tamworth is located on the A15 southern approach to town – just a short drive from The Big Golden Guitar and Gallery of Stars Wax Museum. The hotel offers clean and comfortable accommodation options, including budget rooms, family rooms, deluxe rooms, executive rooms and spa suites.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.